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Six AM No Knock Warrant Gets Burleson County Deputy Killed as Homeowner Arrested for Capital Murder: Is There an 1983 Suit Here?

Around an hour before sunrise one Thursday this month, in rural Burleson County near the town of Somerville, a man named Henry Goedrich Magee was awakened to the sound of someone breaking into his mobile home and as his lawyer explained later, thinking that he was the victim of a home invasion, Magee grabbed his weapon to defend himself and his home.

Unfortunately, Burleson County Sheriff’s Deputy Adam Sowders was one of the men coming through the doorway, and Sowders died as Magee shot him there in the Magee home before daybreak. (There were 7 deputies there that morning to serve that search warrant.)

Police officers took the semi-automatic rifle that Magee used and arrested Magee for capital murder. The judge has Magee on a $1,000,000 bond and the Texas Rangers are now involved in the case.

Magee has hired Houston defense attorney Dick DeGuerin to defend him against the charges. DeGuerin has explained to the media that not only did the deputies enter into Magee’s home without knocking, on a “no knock warrant,” they failed to identify themselves to Magee: he shot without being aware that the men invading his home were law enforcement officers.

What is a No Knock Warrant?

Search warrants allow law enforcement officers to come into your home and search your personal belongings – and if the warrant allows it, they can search your body, too. A “no knock warrant” is a particular kind of search warrant.

Search warrants must be signed by a judge, after the police provide that judge with support for the warrant (usually with an affidavit signed by a police officer). When law enforcement officers believe that someone might destroy things before the officers can enter the dwelling if they are given any warning of an immediate search, they can explain this to the judge and then the judge may decide to okay a “no knock warrant.” This allows the officers to enter a property for a search without first knocking on the door, ringing the doorbell, or otherwise giving those inside the residence that they are on-site and about to enter the place.

The United States Supreme Court has held (Richards v. Wisconsin, 520 U. S. 385, 394 (1997)) that “no-knock” search warrants by the police are constitutionally permissible when the officers have a “reasonable suspicion” that knocking and announcing their presence before entering would “be dangerous or futile, or . . . inhibit the effective investigation of the crime.”

Federal Section 1983 Lawsuits

Under federal law, police activity that victimizes citizens may create liability under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the 4th, 5th, and 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution.

This federal law, as part of the Civil Rights Act, allows an individual to file a lawsuit in federal court for damages based upon various forms of police brutality and police violations of the individual’s constitutional rights. Federal Section 1983 Actions have been based on things like excessive force (where it is shown that the force used by the police was unreasonable, or “excessive”) or lethal force (where an officer shoots to kill a suspect).

What Happened In Burleson County? What Might Have Happened There?

From current media coverage, it would appear that the deceased Sheriff’s Deputy probably wasn’t the one that provided the affidavit to the judge to support his signing off on the search warrant. There were 7 officers there; it would seem from what we know at this juncture that Deputy Sowders was just doing his job.

Many experienced criminal defense lawyers here in Texas (like here at the Law Offices of Michael Lowe) have first-hand experience where Texas police agencies have an apparent, unwritten policy of always requesting no knock search warrants from judges.

News reports are that Magee’s case was a 4 ounce marijuana case.  Why was there a no knock search warrant here: why did they have a SWAT-team style raid on a misdemeanor marijuana case? Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?

Another question to ask:  what was in that supporting affidavit to the judge — did the affidavit describe 4 ounces of marijuana as the big criminal operation that supported the police silently entering someone’s home around the same time that roosters start crowing in rural Texas?

Considering Section 1983, it’s possible that the family of the deceased deputy might have a federal claim based upon the Civil Rights Act.  We’ll see.

What could have, and arguably should have happened here?

The standard procedures of professional police agencies involve simple surveillance undertaken of the residence, and after the police officers see the home owner leave the residence, the officers pull him (or her) over in their car. This is much safer for everyone. Then, the officers get the house keys for the residence and search the home at that point, all based on a search warrant authorized by a judge, of course.

That sure seems like a peaceful, commonsense way to handle the need for a police officer, much less seven deputies, to search a mobile home for 4 ounces of marijuana at around 6 o’clock in the morning in a rural Texas mobile home.

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